This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 4.2.4 AI, future imaginaries, and futures studies

This thesis considered what determines the framework of imaginable futures in society. Starting from a basic concept of collective expectations of the future, which are taken for granted, the search for patterns was undertaken, which could help approach an understanding of expectations of the future. Since the concept combines the reference to the future with social considerations, authors from futures studies, on the one hand, and from sociology and anthropology, on the other hand, were consulted for the search.

From the context of futures research (cf. chapter 2.1), the following were included: from Grunwald, the understanding of the immanence of the present in futures, knowledge elements, and premises as components of futures, and from the participants of the ITAS workshop, a model for the efficacy of futures in society and vice versa. From Polak, the idea of the “pull of the future” was included as a driver for societal development, while from Inayatullah, various concepts for the analysis and impact of futures in society were identified, such as the poststructural toolbox, CLA, and overarching archetypes of future expectations.

In the search for theoretical patterns for society’s handling of expectations in the context of sociology and anthropology, the focus was on the concept of imaginaries (cf. chapter 2.2). Its development was traced in its variety from Voltaire via Castoriadis, Anderson, and Taylor to Appadurai and Strauss.

The pattern search was concluded by analyzing various current approaches that have already dealt with collective expectations of the future in society from different perspectives (cf. chapter 2.3). These include conceptual approaches such as Fictional Expectations for economic sociology and Sociotechnical Imaginaries for STS. In addition, the previous treatment of imaginaries in the context of futurology was considered.

Based on this collection of material from concepts, observations, and perspectives, the concept of collective expectations of the future was condensed into the term Future Imaginaries in chapter 3. In it, the understanding of the future from futures studies is brought together with the understanding of imaginaries from sociology and anthropology, thus approaching a theoretical understanding of future imaginaries as a conceptual framework for (critical) futures studies. The purpose of this conceptual framework is to name these social expectations of the future and make them identifiable and criticizable with a theoretical concept.

Future Imaginaries describe collective expectations of the future of a group that have become part of the background understanding of that group. They are not explicitly formulated but manifest themselves through the stories and actions of the group. As a result, they are inherently vague and difficult to grasp directly. Their characteristics include the dominance of future expectations in the discourse about the future, the presence of a factual and a normative level, their presence not only among elites but among the population at large, and their performativity. (cf. chapter 3.2.1)

Future imaginaries serve society to coordinate its collective approach to an uncertain future and make it manageable in everyday life. They provide orientation for decisions and legitimize actions with regard to the future. At the same time, Future Imaginaries are part of the fundamental collective self-understanding that determines the identity of a society or group in society. (cf. chapter 3.2.3)

In the classification with other terms describing similar concepts, mainly references to each other have been shown (cf. chapter 3.3). Myths and metaphors are among the most basic forms of expression of Future Imaginaries. At the same time, Future Imaginaries are a precursor for Common Sense. As expectations of the future that have virtually taken on a life of their own in the background understanding, they are the conceptual counterpart to mission statements, which in turn attempt to shape expectations of the future actively.

The notion of future imaginaries is not without inconsistencies and conceptual hurdles, mainly because the concept of imaginaries has yet to be clearly defined. But this could be an advantage since the term in this way allows us to approach a vague social phenomenon such as future expectations in the background understanding of society. (cf. chapter 3.4)

At the end of the thesis, an outlook was offered on initial starting points for the development of methodological concepts that can use this thesis’s theoretical explanations. Using the example of the public discourse on artificial intelligence, it was outlined how possible future imaginaries can be approached in practice and what role futures studies could play in this context. (cf. chapter 4)

As this thesis shows, the ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences, which has revived interest in concepts ranging from imaginaries to collective memory in recent years, offers a rich fund of theories and models for critical futures studies. However, a reverse perspective also suggests itself. For a long time, the role of future ideas and expectations was not a topic in sociology. But Polak already called for a sociology of futures, and ‘The Image of the Future’ should be rediscovered by futures studies and sociology. In recent years, sociologists’ first signals of a growing interest in the future have emerged (cf., e.g., 1 2 3 4). Futures studies should not see this as an attack on its territory but should make itself available as an interdisciplinary sparring partner. A better understanding of social understandings of futures and the roles of futures in society is a promising research task.

  1. Selin, C. (2008). The Sociology of the Future: Tracing Stories of Technology and Time. Sociology Compass, 2(6), 1878–1895. 

  2. Schulz, M. S. (2015). Future moves: Forward-oriented studies of culture, society, and technology. Current Sociology, 63(2), 129–139. 

  3. Tutton, R. (2017). Wicked futures: Meaning, matter and the sociology of the future. The Sociological Review, 65(3), 478–492. 

  4. Coleman, R. (2017). A sensory sociology of the future: Affect, hope and inventive methodologies. The Sociological Review, 65(3), 525–543. 

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